A Middletown’s skydiving and aviation businesses has started looking for other locations in Butler County after the latest dispute with the city over the Middletown Regional Airport.
The city council recently approved moving to the skydiving landing zone at the airport to an area company officials say is unsafe. Start Skydiving co-owner John Hart II told the Journal-News that he would rather move the operation than expose any skydiver to an unsafe landing area.
The council’s decision prompted Hart II to file complaints of corruption and other issues to city council and Federal Aviation Administration officials. Hart II has been in an ongoing dispute with city officials concerning landing zones, safety and hangar lease issues.
He said the city was downplaying the downwind pattern of aircraft approaching the airport that could “exponentially” increase the possibility for unavoidable collisions.
Hart II said his company is looking at numerous locations, including the Butler County Regional Airport. He said officials toured several hangars and looked at possible landing areas there.
“We want to stay in Butler County because of the great relationships with the visitor bureaus,” Hart II said. “We are looking at private airstrips and acreage to support a runway.”
He said moving Middletown’s landing zones will cause a major interruption that may result in losing half of Start Skydiving’s business because skydivers will have carry their gear back to the hangar on the other side of the runway or the company will have to purchase a truck or bus to transport them back. Hart said this will increase the time of getting skydivers into the air from three to five minutes to up to 20 minutes.
Hart II said he wants more communication and cooperation with city officials as well as more focus on safety at the airport. He said he did not want to sue the city because “everybody loses” and that Start Aviation would continue to honor its remaining nine years on the hangar lease to house its aircraft.
The council majority consisting of members Talbott Moon, Monica Nenni and Ami Vitori agreed with the recommendation of city staff, the Airport Commission, Airport Manager Dan Dickten and Quadrex Consulting to move the skydiving landing areas in order to complete the airport’s master and airport layout plans. Hart II said he was not consulted by the city or the city Airport Commission before the recommendation was made.
City officials said updated plans are required to obtain FAA funding for major projects. The last two airport plans were submitted in 2002 and 2010, according to city records.
Acting City Manager Susan Cohen said Friday that Law Director Ben Yoder advised council “that due to Mr. Hart’s published statements about litigation, it would best if they did not comment individually.”
City officials said moving the landing zones was necessary to improve the airport to help drive economic development.
As of Friday morning, Hart II said no one from the city has reached out to his company since the May 5 council meeting and that airport staff were instructed to mow the area for new landing area on May 6.
Hart II said the last communication received from the city was on April 2 concerning the Fixed-Based Operator lease. Start Aviation was the airport’s operator, but that contract was terminated last July and the city took over the operation on Jan. 1. The city has allowed Start Aviation to remain in the space while the issues were being worked out.
After a number of media reports and social media discussion on Start Skydiving’s issues with the city’s May 5 decision, the city of Middletown issued a lengthy statement about 5 p.m. Friday addressing Hart II’s claims that it was forcing the family-owned business from operating at the airport and other inaccurate statements and information.
“We felt a need for transparency,” Cohen said. “The citizens deserve to know what’s going on.”
The city’s statement said Start Skydiving owners and supporters had made a number of claims that are inaccurate or not the whole story. The city said it wants “to clear up misconceptions and give the public the city’s perspective.”
“It is simply false that the council has not reached out to the ownership of Start Skydiving,” the statement said.
The statement said city officials have made several attempts to engage Start Skydiving and has a record of letters outlining the landing zone relocation and other matters with the company.
“Start Skydiving has absolutely refused to engage on alternative locations instead resting on ‘where we’ve been for 10 years has been fine, why would we change it?’” the statement said.
“It is very disappointing that Start Skydiving and supporters have resorted to personal attacks and allegations about council members’ integrity,” as council and city staff have approached this matter in a professional and responsible way. “
The statement also said the city has not told Start Skydiving that it may not continue operations at the airport, but the city is asking the company to respect our obligation to map the future of the airport, in part by determining the safest and most beneficial location for the landing zones.
After the city’s statement was posted, there were many comments on various social media pages, both pro and con.
Hart II has been encouraging supporters to email council members to change the decision as council is scheduled to resume its meetings in person at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the council chambers at the Middletown City Building.
On Friday, there were picketers in support of Start Skydiving in downtown Middletown in front of a restaurant owned by a council member. It was ironic as Hart II has painted council’s decision as an attack on a small business, his supporters were attacking a council member’s business.
Since the last council meeting, many skydiving supporters have been emailing council members objecting to the decision and advocating to find a solution with Start Skydiving, which has been at the airport for about a dozen years.
Hart II has previously said Start Skydiving attracts about 60,000 to 80,000 visitors per year to Middletown with a direct economic impact of $6 million to $8 million.
“The Middletown Visitors Bureau would be disappointed to lose this asset and options for visitors,” said Mary Hutlinger, Middletown Visitors Bureau executive director. “Skydiving is a vital cog in tourism. The place is packed and they make a number of contributions.”
Hutlinger said skydiving is a key component of the bureau’s “Adventure Theme” because it’s most prevalent and visible.
“It makes Middletown a ‘destination location,’” she said. “We’ve worked to get people to visit other attractions and they have partnered with us for advertising. It will leave a major void for us.”
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